Six Myths About Hops

Written by Martyn Cornell for

“Jewish exiles in captivity in Babylon (in 597 BC) drank hopped ale as a defence against leprosy”

They did not. The original Hebrew description (from the fourth century AD) of the herb used in the anti-leprosy drink was “cuscuta of the hizmé shrub”, that is, a Middle Eastern climbing plant of the dodder family. By the 11th century, rabbinical commentary on the Talmud was talking about hops, probably because these were more familiar to European Jews than cuscuta. In any case what was drunk to guard against leprosy was shekar flavoured with cuscuta, shekar being a Hebrew word which meant any strong drink, not beer specifically (although in Akkadian, a related Semitic language spoken by the conquerors of Sumer, the word sikar translated Sumerian kash, beer). Shekar became, via the Bible and its Greek and Latin translations, and then French, the source of the English word cider.

“Pliny, in his Natural History, says the Germans preserved ale with hops.”

No he didn’t. Pliny mentions “lupus salictarum”, or “willow wolf”, by which we presume he meant hops (the Italian for hop is still lupulo), only as a “delicacy” for eating, like samphire and fennel, not as a flavouring for ale.

“The first reference to hops in England is a document from AD 622 by the Abbot of Corvey.”

Two problems here – 622 is a typographical error for 822, and the abbey in question was at Corbie, in the Somme valley near Amiens.

“References are made to humlonaria, or hop gardens, given to the Abbey of St Denis [in Paris] by King Pepin in 768.”

The deed in question names lands in the forest of Iveline in France, near Paris (today the forêt de Rambouillet), that the king was granting to the abbey, which among “diversa loca” included one called Humlonariae. This is a place-name, and does not mean “hop gardens”, though it does suggest somewhere noted for wild hops.

“The Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen wrote about the addition of hops to beer in 1079.”

This canard is more than 100 years old, and despite an attempt by the American beer writer John P Arnold to kill it off in 1911 it was still being repeated in HS Corran’s A History of Brewing, published in 1975. The Abbess was not yet alive in 1079: she was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She did, however, mention hops in her book Physica Sacra, written about 1150 or 1160. There are also several versions of the name of her religious settlement near Bingen, in Germany: the usual German version is Rupertsberg.

“Hops were used for flavouring ale in pre-Norman England, and Himbleton in Worcestershire means ‘hop town.’”

The archaeological evidence that hops grew wild in England before the 15th century is pretty good: pollen remains dating back to the Neolithic and before from what were probably wild hops have been found at Thatcham in Berkshire and Urswick in Cumbria. The authorities are split, however: Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica says the hop is “almost certainly a native”, while the botanist Roger Phillips believes the hops found growing today in hedges around England are there “probably because it has often escaped from cultivation”, rather than as wild survivors.

Old English had the word hymele, which was the same as the word used for hop in Medieval Latin, humulus (and the modern Flemish dialect word hommel). However, hymele “may refer to the hop plant or to some similar [climbing] plant”, the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names says. A 10th or 11th-century Anglo-Saxon vocabulary glosses the Latin “uoluula”, that is, convolvulus, bindweed, as “hymele”, and the word hymele was also used for bryony, another climbing plant with hop-like lobed leaves. Even hemlock seems to mean “hymele-like”, perhaps because both it and bryony are extremely poisonous. The best we can say of Himbleton, therefore, is that it means “tun (or homestead) where hymele grows”.

If hymele meant hops, there are at least three places in England named after the plant: Himbleton; Himley, in Staffordshire (the grove or wood where hymele grows); and Humbleton, East Yorkshire, where the first element is the Old Norwegian humli, which did mean hop. However, the East Yorkshire name may have been altered from an original Old English hymele by Scandinavian settlers.

Even if hops did grow here before the Normans came, there is no record of hops, cultivated or otherwise, used for brewing in Britain before the 15th century. There was an ancient form of rent called “hopgavel” or “hoppegavel” in pre-Conquest Kent, which it has been suggested, indicated that hops were cultivated for brewing in the county before 1066. But hoppe in Middle English could also mean the seedpod of the flax plant, and hoppegavel is defined in one Middle English dictionary as a rent paid in flax pods.

There is the curious case of the Graveney Boat, which was abandoned at Graveney in Kent about 950 AD and discovered by archaeologists in the early 1970s. Investigations showed clearly that it had been either loaded or unloaded with hops just before it was abandoned: there were remains of hop flowers and hop nuts in the boat and on the brushwood platform that lay beside the boat.

However, in the absence of any evidence on what those hops were used for, the Graveney boat must remain an anomaly. The sometimes violent reaction of 15th and 16th century English ale brewers and drinkers against the use of hops by beer brewers from the Low Countries shows that if hops had once been put into ale for flavouring in these islands, their use had been forgotten. Yet if hops had ever been used by British brewers before 1400, the advantages they gave to the product, particularly in extending the life of the drink, would surely have meant hops would have been already widespread here long before Dutch and Flemish beer brewers began to arrive.

Finally, if the Old English had a word for hop, hymele, it would be odd for Medieval English to have to adopt the Middle Dutch word hoppe for the name of the plant. It seems much more likely this was a new plant to the English, which needed a new name.

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